What can you say about a 21-year-old lefthander who has control of a fastball that explodes in all directions? If you are Boog Powell, you can say: "He throws harder than Sandy Koufax did. He has an effortless motion, a smooth, compact delivery. He goes out for nine innings and doesn't seem to weaken." If you are the organist at Oakland Coliseum, you can say it still more simply. You turn to the keyboard and play Rhapsody in Blue.
The lefthander is Vida Blue Jr. of the Oakland A's. Three months ago he was merely one of these fine, young, so-far-strong-armed prospects; now he is the most dominant, most nearly foolproof starting pitcher since Denny McLain.
Blue's fastball is as volatile as they come, and yet when it is sailing away from the corners—as it was against the Twins in the first five innings on June 21, for instance—he can adjust it under pressure, as he did that night in the last four innings. He won 3-2, striking out 13. Four days later, when he shut out Kansas City on five hits and 12 strikeouts, it was his 16th low-hit, complete-game win in 20 starts. In 1968, when McLain won 31, he did not win his 16th until July 7, his 21st start—and he was a chunky righthander in his fifth big-league season. A whippy young lefthander like Blue who combines such protean heat with such acute composure is almost an unnatural phenomenon—a Marilyn Monroe with inner security, a Keats with good lungs.
Traditionally, fireballing lefthanders either mature late or break down early; Koufax was 25 before he could throw strikes, and five years later he yielded to agony of the elbow. Lefty Grove was 27 before he settled down, Warren Spahn was 25 before he won a big-league game and Sam McDowell at 28 is still something of a question mark. Karl Spooner of the 1954-55 Dodgers struck out 27 men in his first two games and shortly thereafter burned out his arm. Cleveland's Herb Score was ruined by a line drive to the eye at the age of 24. Rube Waddell of the old Philadelphia A's was 26 before he reached his stride and then, in his capacity as the archetypal left-handed screwball, dissipated his gifts. Babe Ruth won 23 the year he was Blue's age (and had almost as catchy a name), but he soon turned into a rightfielder. What kind of person is it who defies such tradition?
Several facts about Blue have been publicized widely. He broke in late last season with a no-hitter and a one-hitter; he pitched six shutouts this year and struck out a batter an inning while keeping his ERA handily under 2.00; he runs to and from the mound; he remains amicable and feisty under constant pressure from reporters who ask whether he thinks he is a superstar and from kids who come by his apartment to ask him and roommate Tommy Davis to come out and play ball; he has been presented with a powder-blue Cadillac that has V BLUE license plates by Oakland Owner Charles O. Finley; he is a single man with all the attention from the ladies he could ask for; he chose baseball because the money was there, though the University of Houston badly wanted him to be its first black quarterback; he pitches with two dimes in his pocket for some mysterious reason; he has certain reservations about growing up black in Mansfield, La. So far that image cannot be expanded to include any notable flaws. Blue does not even stutter, like Melville's Billy Budd.
American League hitters are divided over whether Blue or McDowell throws harder, but Blue is considered to have better control—he averages fewer than three walks a game—and "he throws hard when he has to," says the Yankees' Roy White. "He jammed me with a pitch like I never have been jammed before, and I was using a 30-ounce bat." Players who have seen phenoms of all stripes come along are shaking their heads and conceding that Blue is beautiful.
He bounces into the Oakland dressing room after pregame warmups, awash with sweat. "It's real easy for me to perspire," he says. He has been running in the outfield and then backing up the pitcher during batting practice, a chore he enlivens by jump-shooting balls into the ball bucket. Now he removes and jump-shoots into a clothes hamper several layers of sweaty uniform, including such items as a pair of formfitting sweatpants. (Once when asked why he dressed so warmly in such hot weather he answered, "I guess I'm just a fool.") As he takes his jump shots he addresses a cluster of clubhouse boys.
"George, you my man, get me a soda pop. Steve, how 'bout wringing out my shirt here. Chuck, get me a dry sweatshirt."
Only Chuck is not a clubhouse boy. He happens to be Chuck Dobson, a six-year veteran with a tidy 7-0 won-lost record and the night's starting pitcher. Dobson will work before 8,392 fans, as compared to the 19,893 Blue will draw on the next night, which offers no special attractions other than Blue. So that Blue can appear as often as possible on otherwise unprepossessing nights at home, Oakland's starting rotation lately has been shuffled around. This shuffling has irritated the other starters—at least two of whom, Catfish Hunter (11-6) and Dobson, have also played important roles in Oakland's running off to a 10�-game lead in the American League West. In addition, Oakland's defense and hitting—88 home runs in 78 games (most in the majors)—have provided excellent support, while Blue has reaped all the publicity. But Blue has no capacity for testy relations. Exuberance is hard to hate. So is a 16-3 record. Dobson declines with a straight face to get him a sweatshirt.
"Oh," says Blue, equally straight-faced. "I knew I'd go too far.